The draft of Origin of species

by John van Wyhe

Charles Darwin's Origin of species was published on 24 November 1859. It transformed our understandings of nature and ourselves, making it one of the most influential books in history. Within 10-15 years the book managed to convince most of the international scientific community that evolution is a fact. As the Darwin Online project found, it has been translated into 56 languages, far more than any other scientific book. See the largest collection of reviews here.

This is the most complete edition of drafts of the Origin of species ever published. It includes seven not previously recorded, with three recently discovered as part of this research: SHSI-02-03-01,B7, FMB-Aut.D-4.2, CUCNY-HerterBox1 (and possibly a 4th: CUL-DAR64.2.28v). New research provides unprecedented details about the surviving draft sheets.

     Only 11 pages are known to still be in private hands. They are so rare and highly prized that the last one to sell at auction, in 2018, went for £490,000 ($600,000). Because of its cultural and national significance, in 2019 the manuscript was placed under a temporary export bar by the UK's Minister for Arts, Heritage and Tourism. (see case study report here) The owner later contacted Darwin Online to contribute scans of the manuscript.

Diagram representing the 490 pages of Origin of species in grey with the surviving draft pages in red.

     Never sentimental about material objects, once his work was in print, Darwin discarded the original draft of Origin of species into the pile of family scrap paper. His young children used the backs of some of the sheets for drawings and no doubt many other things. A 1923 postcard from Darwin's son Horace to the biostatistician Karl Pearson (1857-1936) at UCL notes: "When we were children, we often used the blank sides of my father's M.S.S. when returned from the printers as scribbling paper." Years later, when admirers began to ask for them as keepsakes or relics, it was hard to find sheets of the original draft. (CUL-DAR221.4.94[.2])

     Some were found and, over decades, given away as gifts by Darwin but mostly by his children after his death. These are now scattered around the world and some have probably been lost.

  A leaf of the Origin of species
Thumbnail montage of the Origin draft sheets - reunited here for the first time since Darwin's lifetime.   Folio 233 is one of only 3 signed by Darwin. Deckel edge on the left. This sheet is the most recent to be located- found in the library of Fondation Martin Bodmer, Switzerland.


     These draft pages make it possible to see in detail how Darwin originally composed and revised many of his arguments and expressions. The drafts also contain many sentences that were never published, offering fascinating insights into Darwin's thinking as he composed the book that quite literally changed the world.

     What would have happened if he had published the original version of some of his arguments? In one crossed out passage Darwin had written that "An instinct may almost be called a complex trick", a phrase he never used again. (folio 233)

     In a famous passages of Origin of species Darwin argued that natural selection could gradually transform an animal like a bear into something like a whale. He was mocked and criticised by reviewers so severely that he deleted the passage from all later editions. What would have happened if he had published the passage as originally written? The draft reveals this wording which has never been printed before:

In N. America a bear has been seen swimming for hours with widely open mouth, thus catching the minute crustaceans swimming on the surface. Even in so extreme a case as this, if the supply of minute crustaceans were constant, & there did not in the region exist better adapted competitors, I can see no difficulty in a race of Bears being rendered by natural selection more & more aquatic in habits & structure, with larger & larger mouth, till a creature was produced as monstrous in size & structure as a whale though feeding on prey so minute. (folio 198)

Origin draft
Origin draft

     Darwin's handwriting is notoriously difficult to read. All of the drafts have been transcribed and edited showing where the text appears in the published book, so that they may be compared, and the subsequent history of the manuscript is briefly given. These are stories for another day- a book on them is in progress.

     Darwin wrote most of the Origin of species on high-quality blue wove paper with a deckel edge and no watermarks (332 x 213mm; 13 1/16 x 8 3/8in). The Victorian paper industry was newly industrialised and paper was available in an astonishing range of sizes, colours, weights and finishes. Darwin chose the best paper on which to write the chief work of his life.

     The table of surviving pages below reveals which parts of the manuscript are known and, for the first time, where there are gaps. Those with only one or two missing pages are very likely to survive today.

     The table below makes the general survival pattern clear. Almost all of the introduction and first five chapters do not survive, presumably consumed by the Darwin family from the scrap paper kept under the stairs at Down House. From folio 197 of Chapter 6 we have the longest surviving chunk, extending with some gaps to folio 242. Another stack of sheets from folio 269 to 277 also survived. Most of these sheets eventually came into the hands of Darwin's daughter Henrietta Litchfield.

     Some sheets have mathematical exercises by George Darwin on the backs as do a great many other surviving Darwin drafts. (Many have been collected in Darwin Online.) Five leaves survive, from opposite ends of the Origin manuscript, because the Darwin children made drawings on the backs which were preserved.

     The highest known surviving draft page number is 355 which corresponds to Origin, p. 301. Since the book is 490 pages long, at 1.18 draft pages per printed page, the draft of Origin of species would have been c.580 numbered pages with numerous slips for textual insertions. Therefore, of the perhaps 620 pages of the draft of Origin of species, only the 59 below are known to survive. However, the gaps in the surviving chunks are likely to survive, so the number could be as high as 70.

     The Origin drafts transcribed here total 11,700 words. Of those, 1,300 words were crossed out/deleted. The Origin is 150,400 words (minus the index and table of contents) so we have draft text of 7.78%.

     A fair copy for the printers was made of each chapter by Darwin's copyists, especially Ebenezer Norman, which would have been shorter, but only two or three sheets are known to survive. So if we include both the rough draft and the presumed length of the fair copy as c.1,800 pages, only 3% of the pages that made Origin of species survive.

Darwin in 1857. (Maull & Polyblank 1857.9 in The Complete Photographs of Darwin)

     Darwin made very extensive corrections to the first and second proofs. (See some for Insectivorous plants (1875) here) His son Francis recalled that "my mother looked over the proofs of the 'Origin.'" (LL1:153) Finally on 1 October 1859 all was finished. Darwin noted in his Journal': "Finished proofs— 13 months & 10 days. of Abstract on Origin of species.— 1250 copies printed." Shortly after it was published, Darwin wrote to his Cambridge mentor J. S. Henslow "My Book has been far more successful as yet, then I dreamed of." (here)

     Emma Darwin wrote to their eldest son William in late November or early December 1859:

"Your father has sent the 2nd edition [of Origin of species] to be printed & I suppose we shall be having those blessed proof sheets again as soon as we return home.
It is a wonderful thing the whole edition selling off at once & Mudie taking 500 copies. Your father says he shall never think small beer of himself again & that candidly he does think it very well written." (CUL-DAR210.6.52)

     See Darwin's copy of Origin of species available only in Darwin Online and an introduction with chapter-by-chapter summaries here. The first proofs of the 6th edition are preserved in CUL-DAR213.9 (see pages after 177 here) Darwin marked them in late 1871 in preparation for the 6th and last edition of his book in 1872. He made his last textual changes to the 1876 printing. For the very many changes that the book underwent during its six editions, see the online variorum edition by Barbara Bordalejo.

The world's largest collection of online Darwin manuscripts is in Darwin Online: Manuscripts.

Intro? 10












































fair 23






pp. 283-4



(a), p. 307

fair 48




(Note: a folio is a sheet of paper)

Source Link Draft part & Origin pages
unlocated   folios 1-39.
CUL-DAR64.2.28v Text & image Fair copy, Introduction?, folio 10. Origin, pp. 3-4. Introduction by John van Wyhe

Text & image

[Sect. I], folio 40. Origin, p. 40. (child's drawing on verso) ['Section' became 'Chapter' in Origin]

unlocated   folios 41-74.
Goldberg2017.101.159 Text & image Sect. III, folio 75. Origin, p. 71.
unlocated   folios 76-155.
Text & image Sect. V, folio 156. Origin, p. 149-50.
unlocated   Sect. V, folios 157-162.
Text & image Ch. V, folio 163. Origin, p. 155.
unlocated   Ch. V, folio 163 attached note.
folios 164-196.
Text & image Sect. VI, folio 197. Origin, pp. 183.
CUL-DAR185.103 Text & image Sect. VI, folio 198. Origin, pp. 183-4.
unlocated   Sect. VI, folios 199-200.
Lehigh-MS-ALS-Darwin-C.18xx Text & image Sect. VI, folio 201. Origin, pp. 185-6.
CUL-DAR185.137 Text & image Sect. VI, folio 202. Origin, pp. 186-7.
CUL-DAR185.108 Text & image Sect. VI, folio 203. Origin, p. 187.
AMNH-RF-18-H Text & image Sect. VI, folio 204. Origin, pp. 187-8.
CUL-DAR157.1 Text & image Sect. VI, folio 205. Origin, p. 188.
unlocated   Sect. VI, folios 206-7.
CUL-DAR185.108 Text & image Sect. VI, folios 208, 208(a), 209, 210. Origin, pp. 187, 190-2, 196-9, 202.
CUL-DAR185.141 Text & image [Sect. VI, folio 209](a). Origin, p. 191.
CUL-DAR157.2 Text & image Sect. VI, folio 211. Origin, pp. 192-3.
CUL-DAR157.3 Text & image Sect. VI, folio 212. Origin, p. 193.
CUL-DAR157.4 Text & image Sect. VI, folio 213. Origin, pp. 193-4.
F3555 Text & image Sect. VI, folio 214. Origin, p. 194.
F3532 Text & image Sect. VI, folios 215, 215(a), 216. Origin, pp. 194-6.
CUL-DAR185.108 Text & image Sect. VI, folios 217-221. Origin, pp. 196-9.


Sect. VI, folios 222, 223, 223(a), 224. Origin, pp. 200-2.

CUL-DAR185.108 Text & image Sect. VI, folio 225. Origin, p. 202.
Text & image Sect. VI, folio 226. Origin, p. 203.
unlocated   Sect. 7, folios 227-8.
Christies-9178-Lot77 Text & image Sect. VI, folio 229. Origin, pp. 204-6.
Text & image Sect. VI, folio 230. Origin, pp. 205-6.
CUL-DAR185.145 Text & image Sect. VI, folio 231. Origin, p. 206.
CUL-DAR185.146 Text & image [Sect. VI, folio 231](a)(b). Origin, p. 206.
unlocated   Sect. 7, folio 232.
Text & image Sect. 7, folio 233. Origin, pp. 207-8.
unlocated   Sect. 7, folio 234
F3516 Text & image Sect. 7, folio 235. Origin, p. 209.
unlocated   Sect. 7, folio 236


Sect. 7, folios 237-240. Origin, pp. 210-14.
unlocated   Sect. 7, folio 237 attached note.
Text & image Sect. 7, folio 241. Origin, pp. 214-15.
Text & image Sect. 7, folio 242. Origin, p. 215.
unlocated   Sect. 7, folios 243-268.
CUL-DAR185.109.22 Text & image Fair copy, Chap. VII, folio 23. Origin, p. 219. (child's drawing on verso)


Sect. 7, folio 269. Origin, pp. 237-8.

PC-USA-OriginMS270 Text & image Sect. 7, folio 270. Origin, p. 238.


Sect. 7, folio 271. Origin, pp. 238-9.

unlocated   Sect. 7, folios 272-276.
Text & image Sect. 7, folio 277. Origin, pp. 243-4
Lehigh-MS-ALS-Darwin-C.1859 Text & image Chap. VIII, folio 277. Origin, p. 245.
unlocated   Sect. 8, folios 278-323.
PC-USA-OriginMS324 /
Text & image Sect. 8, folio 324. Origin, pp. 277-8.
Text & image [Sect. 9], unnumbered folio. Origin, pp. 283-4.
unlocated   Sect. 9, folios 325-337.
F3518 Text & image Sect. 9, folio 338. Origin, pp. 289-90.

Sect. 9, folio 338(a).
Sect. 9, folios 339-354.

CUL-DAR185.109.26 Text & image Sect. 9, folio 355. Origin, p. 301. (child's drawing on verso)
unlocated   Sect. 9, folios 356-?
CUL-DAR185.109.24 Text & image [Sect. 9], unnumbered folio (a). Origin, p. 307. (child's drawing on verso)
unlocated   folios ?-?
CUL-DAR185.109.21 Text & image Fair copy, Chap. XIII, folio 48. Origin, pp. 442-3. (child's drawing on verso)
The following are not drafts of the 1st edition of Origin

Draft title for Natural selection. 'On the mutability of species'. Origin, p. [iii].


Proposed title page. Origin, p. [iii].
CUL-DAR64.2.13v Text & image

unnumbered folio, Origin, Preface to 4th USA printing, pp. vff, later Origin 3d ed., Historical sketch.

Sothebys-N11124 Text & image

Autograph paragraph from Origin 3d ed., p. 514.
Not a draft, but a very interesting manuscript. See introduction and video interview: Expert Voices: John van Wyhe. Sothebys & YouTube.


Darwin sometimes added text by writing it on the back (verso) or on separate slips of paper marked (a) or (b) etc. and then attached the slip to the back of the sheet with a straight pin. (This was before the introduction of the paperclip which only became common in the early 20th century.) When his paid copyists received the rough draft, they would write out his words minus the deletions, adding in what Darwin wrote inbetween lines and what was to be added from these slips. The result is called a fair copy.

Apparently all but one of Darwin's pins have been removed and might be lost. (Folio 215 is described as having its slip pinned to the back.) The dents or impressions and faint stains made by these pins can show which side of the page a note was pinned to. We have included all the versos here when possible.

A pin still in place on an unrelated 1862 document in the author's collection. The verso is shown in the inset image.

Pin holes in folio 203 (top) and the corresponding slip (a) (bottom).

A note on the colour of the paper/scans: The colour of the paper varies considerably across different recent scans of the same manuscripts. The amount of fading or blueness is therefore not to be relied on from the scans reproduced here.



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